Meet our Artist in Residence, Hannah Dawn Henderson, who asks important questions about historical cultural representation.
As part of our Beyond Words Artists’ Book project Artist Hannah Dawn Henderson came to stay in Hull for the month of October 2016 to research issues of Freedom for the publication we have commissioned her to create. During her stay, she was resident in the History Centre and in WISE and explored Hull’s historical past. Below Hannah explains her work and tells us what she thought of Hull during her stay.
Tell us a bit about yourself, where you are based, your previous work/career highlights, your passions, interests etc.
I’m a visual artist and writer, and I am based in between the UK and the Netherlands, specifically in the cities of Manchester and The Hague. I graduated two years ago from the Dutch Royal Academy of Fine Arts with a master degree in Artistic Research and following this, I worked as a videographer and researcher at a project space in The Hague called GEMAK. Living and working in between two countries combined with having a very intersectional identity has instilled and nurtured in me a very strong interest in the politics of identity, selfhood, and communication. I’ve worked a lot with the theme of language and narrative in recent years, and lately, my artistic concerns are shifting towards the notion of visibility and in what ways narratives and voices have been historically mediated.
What were you researching in Hull and how did you do this?
Whilst in Hull I was very keen to make use of the Liberty Collection at Hull’s History Centre to gather an impression and understanding of how the experiences of Commonwealth migrants were narrated during the mid to later part of the 20th Century. In some of my most recent work, I’ve been contemplating what it means to be of both British and Caribbean heritage, particularly in terms of the political inheritance that such an identity entails, so it was my hope to further investigate this theme. I found quite a broad range of material, from newspaper clippings to private correspondence to government reports. Quite a lot of it was very challenging, even more so when one recognises that much of the critical language used is still echoed today but directed to different demographics of people.
I also invited two friends of mine to join me during the final week of the residency – Fazle Shairmahomed, an anthropologist and dancer from The Hague, and Malik Nashad Sharpe, a choreographer and dancer from New York/London. Together we talked through some of the material I had been looking at and we further reflected upon the nuanced narratives we each embody that are interconnected to this complex and still very present legacy of colonialism. This underpinned in a series of unannounced movement performances in various locations along Hull’s docklands, which I filmed and hope to develop into a new video work.
Throughout the whole process, I had a lot of guidance and motivation from archivist Simon Wilson from the Hull History Centre and historian Nick Evans from the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation. Talking with them gave me a lot to contemplate in terms of the social significance archives possess, as well as the political urgencies involved in narrating the history and making it accessible.
What was your impression of Hull and what were the highlights of your stay here or what stood out to you most?
I found myself quite interested in Hull’s history, particularly in relation to the economy, migration, and cultural identity. I hadn’t visited the actual city of Hull much prior to the residency, so I very much enjoyed the process of becoming acquainted with it and feeling much like an early tourist ahead of next year’s City of Culture programme. I became very attached to certain locations I was visiting a lot, such as the area around Corporation Pier, the Museums Quarter, Queen’s Gardens, Pearson Park and Princess Avenue. When I go back I also have it on my list to visit places like The Deep and Ferensway Gallery, and I definitely have to return one more time to Hitchcock’s Vegetarian Restaurant (which I think is an absolute must for anyone visiting Hull). I think what especially made an impression on me was just how very helpful and open most people I encountered were.
What do you plan to create from the research you have done?
I’m hoping to develop several works that reflect upon the research I did. Amongst them will be a publication, which is being developed graphically with designer and artist Matthijs Walhout. I want to write about the experience of gathering my research, becoming confronted with this sense of political inheritance, and generally meditating upon different states of cultural, political and social identity.
What does Freedom mean to you?
The question of freedom is a complicated one, but I personally see it as being about the experience of when you and what you embody (cultural narratives, political history, the vocabulary of one’s identity) is acknowledged, actively supported, represented and made visible within society and social discourse as equally as others are. Underpinning all of that must be a sense of real social investment and education – that, I feel, is the thing that actually ensures lasting change. The development and embracing of new vocabularies, new legislations, and the platforming of otherwise marginalised narratives must occur in tandem with educating the public on why actually these developments and this visibility is urgently required – otherwise there will always be a backlash, a kind of resistance that destabilises the certainty of whether these changes will actually last. So, I suppose in short I would say freedom to me is when society goes beyond the stance of ‘tolerance’ and moves towards actual dialogue, co-operation and support.
Beyond Words is our year-round Artists’ Book Project curated by Book Works, funded by James Reckitt Library Trust, supported by Hull Culture and Leisure Library Services and in partnership with WISE and The History Centre.